Tokyo is, once again, in trouble and you’re caught in the center of confusion. In Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor you — a silent protagonist with headphones, a computer whiz, and a frightened female are locked in the metropolis… with demons.
Early in the game the main characters are handed COMPs, short for communication player, by the protagonist’s creepy looking cousin. These devices are purposely modeled like a Nintendo DS. As a neat touch, the game breaks the fourth wall when you fail a mission by saying “mind to COMP disconnected” before resetting to the title screen. COMPs act as your link to the demon world. With these devices your characters and eventually many others trapped in Tokyo gain the ability to tame and summon demons.
Devil Survivor’s strategy RPG battle system is closer to Archaic Sealed Heat than anything else. You place four characters, each armed with up to two demons, on a map. Characters can move, but battles are actually turn based. When you run into a demon you pick moves like attack, lightning spells like zio, and overly powerful elemental charged dances that can hit enemies multiple times. Since this is a Shin Megami Tensei game you’re encouraged to exploit weakness, which are conveniently shown on the top screen. Having the extra information sounds like it makes the game easier, but it’s actually a necessity. Grinding your way through Devil Survivor’s free battles only takes you so far since there is a limit on the amount of experience points you earn. If you want to survive fights and beat the game you have to fuse the right demons for the right situations.
One twist in Devil Survivor is you don’t need to beat all three enemy demons. If you kill the leader the other demons suddenly give up, presumably cowering in terror. However, if you just aim for the leader you earn less experience and macca. There’s a good risk vs. reward relationship here that other strategy RPGs don’t have.
Not all missions are about exterminating demons either. Sometimes you have to protect civilians caught in the chaos. You can lose these missions if a single defenseless, AI controlled civilian dies. Rescue missions can be rough since one unlucky critical hit on an office lady can end your game. Here’s where fusion comes in handy again. Demons in the wilder taxonomy have a skill called Devil Speed, which boosts the number of squares a character can move. If you can just get close to a demon attacking a civilian you can usually distract it.
Demons gain new skills by leveling up and fusing them, just like any other Shin Megami Tensei game. Devil Survivor doesn’t have any demon negotiation. Instead you purchase demons from an auction, which pretty much comes down to how fast you can increase the price to buy a demon before other bidders do. Player characters like the protagonist get skills by “cracking” them, better explained as extracting them from enemy demons. Before a battle begins each human can set one skill to crack. If that character’s team defeats that specific demon you get the skill. Since skills can be shared between human party members you only need to crack agidyne (that’s a powerful fire in SMT) once. However, only one party member can use agidyne at a time, which forces the players to diversify their human team leaders.
Battles are the bulk of gameplay, but only a part of the game. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor also has a story, told like a visual novel, to follow. You pick locations in Tokyo to “visit” and from a menu you can read what’s going on in Shibuya, Shinjuku, and other major areas. Story events, indicated by a clock, consume time and since time is limited you can’t do everything. Each day begins with the protagonist getting a mysterious LaPlace Mail which predicts key events of the day. The daily LaPlace Mail acts as a guide in an otherwise elastic story.
Shin Megami Tensei games are about choices and deciding which ideology you support. Since they started coming out in North America with Nocturne (OK, Revelations: The Demon Slayer was technically first) players could explore multiple paths without restarting the game. All you needed to do was save at the right time. That’s how I played Nocturne and I’m sure I’m not the only one who did that. You can’t use this trick in Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor since there is only one save file. I guess you can bend the rules a little by suspending the game and using that as a second game, but since Devil Survivor has so many branches you won’t be able to see the whole game that way either.
Because of this I found myself more cautious about the choices I made. Even though it’s considered a spin off in Japan, Devil Survivor has the usual Shin Megami Tensei beliefs to side with like believe what I believe or die, might makes right, and of course neutrality. Yuzu also presents an interesting option, attempt to run away instead of confronting the conflict head on. What you make the main character say or don’t say (he can “say” …) affects which characters join you and even which enemies you run into. Even though Devil Survivor has a set beginning and a few endings to discover, the game feels like it’s tailoring itself to your choices. The paths aren’t obvious either and since you’re bombarded with questions whoever dares to make a FAQ for Devil Survivor is going to have quite a challenge.